By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya
After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win against the establishment Democrat in New York’s 14th Congressional District, I contacted my Democratic Socialists of America chapter to see how I could help. Prior to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, I had hesitated in officially joining the DSA. I believed it offered little for black and brown communities like mine. However, watching clips of Ocasio-Cortez speaking on issues important to working-class black and brown people while knowing that she was endorsed by the DSA, forced me to rethink my previous assumptions.
Ocasio-Cortez, and others like Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib also forced my colleagues and students at Rutgers University to reassess what they may have thought about politics. More students are now receptive to discussions of socialism and feel emboldened in positively changing the U.S. political system. My own family members and friends have become obsessed with Ocasio-Cortez and those like her — they read whatever they can about them and share clips of them on social media.
However, as I’ve continued to help organize around issues like housing with our Central Jersey DSA chapter, I also recognize the limits of electoral politics in significantly improving peoples’ lives, especially for black and brown communities. After all, in New Jersey, we have Democrats dominating the State Assembly and a Democrat as Governor — and yet, living and working conditions for many black and brown residents continue to deteriorate. Therefore, it is necessary to reevaluate the role of electoral politics in building socialism. I argue that when examining electoral politics, we must center our analysis on black and brown people in the U.S. Doing so reveals that electoral politics shouldn’t be summarily dismissed, but ultimately, our goal must be to build constituencies among people of color that remain independent of either political party. Only with this strategy can we apply pressure to policymakers — regardless of their partisan affiliation and campaign promises – to better the lives of black and brown people.
The Potential for Change
The right to vote has been a source of contention since the founding of the United States. White male landowners knew that extending the right to vote to all Americans — especially to the black community — would threaten their ability to exploit others for profit. Thus, the right to participate as full human beings in American politics was formally denied to members of most marginalized groups – including and especially black people — until Reconstruction. Until the Civil War, most black people were kept in bondage, forced to work for the benefit of America’s elites. After the war, slavery was formally ended and the right to vote was extended. Still, that same white economic elite who still owned the vast majority of land and wealth managed to gradually restrict access to the vote and once more, placed African American into the position of being second-class citizens. Consequently, throughout U.S. history, securing the right to vote has been a central tenet for black revolutionaries, who understood that the vote was one of many tools in resisting the authoritarianism of the country’s white elite and their coalition of reactionary white voters. Jack O’ Dell, the civil rights radical who led efforts in registering black voters in the South under Jim Crow, stated in Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: “Increasingly experience teaches us that of central importance to the success of our efforts to abolish segregation is the battle for the Ballot.”
W.E.B. Du Bois remarked in his classic text, Black Reconstruction, on how revolutionary it was for African Americans to finally have the right to vote after the Civil War. Suddenly, legislatures across the South resembled those who actually lived in those states, with African American legislators and progressive whites voted into office. Legislatures pushed through more egalitarian policies, such as creating public schools and investing in infrastructure as well as encouraging the fair distribution of land to the formerly enslaved.
The Southern white elite and Northern industrialists were alarmed at how the marginalized were electing officeholders who could challenge the white economic elite’s stranglehold on power and wealth. Their fear of a social democracy is what motivated Southern and Northern elites in forming a coalition of reactionary forces to resist further democratization. Through intimidation and terror, they forced out federal troops, leaving African Americans defenseless. Soon, laws were passed, which restricted access to the vote for African Americans as well access to resources and jobs.
“The South was impelled to brute force and deliberate deception in dealing with the Negro because it had been astonished and disappointed not by the Negro’s failure, but by his success and promise of greater success,” Du Bois explained.
Until the 1960s, Jim Crow laws passed by all-white legislatures economically and politically disempowered African Americans. However, through the hard work of activists and groups like SNCC and SCLC, several of these restrictions – including many that limited black voters’ right to vote — were finally lifted by the late 1960s and African Americans rushed to register.
“Despite the profound limits of the new politics for poor and working-class black people, their energy, enthusiasm, and support fueled the rise of black mayoral regimes during the late twentieth century,” historian Joe Williams Trotter, Jr. writes in Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America, citing figures such as Harold Washington in Chicago. Washington and politicians like him, unlike those who came before them, were elected by black constituents and responded to the immediate needs and interests of many African Americans, such as expanding access to jobs that helped in creating an African American middle-class.
Unfortunately, since the 1990s, due to economic marginalization and a Democrat establishment having shifted to the right on economic policies, many African Americans as well as Latinos and Asian Americans and progressive whites have grown disenchanted with voting. And due to Republican maneuvers, such as voter I.D. laws and redistricting, communities of color have felt electorally disempowered. In fact, laws at the national level, by Democrats and Republicans, have been passed — such as the 1990’s crime bill or so-called welfare reform, — which have made conditions more difficult for marginalized groups to vote or to even care about voting.
Still, as noted by political scientists Michael Dawson and Bernard Fraga, many of those who aren’t voting are African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans and working-class whites who lean-Left on economic issues, including healthcare and wages. Steve Phillips, author of Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, concludes that an energized coalition of untapped voters of color combined with some progressive whites would help “elect 331 members of the House of Representatives, where it takes 218 votes to control the chamber, and 64 senators, 4 more than the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters.” The problem is that not enough candidates have reached out to them or have spoken on issues important to them, such as policing and housing. All it takes is for campaigns to talk and connect with the disaffected in order to energize them and as seen in previous decades, could amount to some progressive shifts in our politics and policies.
Ultimately, there is a pool of potential voters who could form a socialist constituency for years to come. Therefore, at a national level, due to structural constraints, we must connect with campaigns — most often Democratic — that recognize that the answer to winning power is to not dilute their message by chasing after the mythical white swing-voter but instead, to connect with and stitch together a coalition of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans and progressive whites. This means supporting campaigns that speak to issues of housing and healthcare and who conduct out-reach to communities of color rather than rely on surrogates. At a local level, however, the DSA and others can create such coalitions on their own, which include connecting with progressive labor and movements like Black Lives Matter, to run more independent and far-Left candidates, who are willing to tap into a socialist constituency. Further, through campaigning, we can tap into the frustration among voters of color and the marginalized and help them connect their issues to topics like socialism, anti-capitalism, and organizing for power.
However, as will be further discussed in the next section, there are also significant limits in achieving radical change that can improve the vast majority of black and brown peoples’ lives through the electoral arena. As Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer lays out in Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America, the two-party system we have in the U.S. severely limits options for marginalized groups, particularly African Americans (and arguably, other groups such as Asian Americans), and often, allows politicians who claim to represent African Americans, such as members of the Democrat Party, to take their vote for granted and to not speak to their issues.
The Limits of Reform
In his examination of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, Du Bois understood that despite initial progress, authoritarian political and economic forces eventually returned the region to despotism.
“Profit, income, uncontrolled power in My Business for My Property and for Me—this was the aim and method of the new monarchial dictatorship that displaced democracy in the United States in 1876,” he explained.
Although black progressive lawmakers attempted to sustain a more egalitarian spirit in the South, their efforts were insufficient to break through the growing coalition of the Southern planter class, white reactionaries, and Northern industrialists.
From its inception, the U.S. political system was created to preserve property and power for its white elite and to allow capitalism to expand. First, its founding policymakers devised structural obstacles to ordinary Americans who’d desire forming a collective anti-capitalist anti-racist force to win power at a national level. They did this by creating unelected judgeships who can strike down laws favorable to the marginalized as well as by creating electoral laws that make it impossible for third-party candidates to take power nationally. Thus, we’re trapped within a two-party political system where usually, both parties are uninterested in tackling white supremacy and capitalism. Second, constitutional rights were conceptualized at an individual level, such as the right to vote, which was restricted to those who would ally with the emerging status quo. Economic rights such as equal access to resources were not viewed as a fundamental right under the law. Hence, following the rise of industrial capital, policymakers and judges consistently sided against workers and farmers on issues of collective power. Today, we see judges and establishment Democrats and Republicans doing the same by pursuing policies that protect the ability for the wealthiest Americans and corporations to accumulate wealth at the expense of black and brown peoples and working-class whites.
Thus, the electoral system, built to conform to the logics of capitalism, has always had a low ceiling in meeting the needs of the extremely marginalized, especially African Americans and even Mexican Americans in the Southwest or Asian Americans in major cities. Having the right to vote is important, as mentioned earlier, but the type of changes that even politicians favorable to socialism can achieve will never be enough at a national level to confront serious issues, such as the growing racial wealth gap and neoliberalism’s impact on black and brown communities.
“Voter registration and mobilization are, of course, crucial tools in the struggle for black empowerment,” the legendary social scientist and political theorist Manning Marable wrote in Beyond Black and White: From Civil Rights to Barack Obama, “But electoral politics, by itself, cannot transform the actual power relations between racialized, oppressed minorities and the white majority.”
After the Civil Rights era, the forces of capital made it nearly impossible for even black legislators to advocate for radical policies concerning the redistribution of resources. Deindustrialization, the power of global capital, and the growing influence of conservative economic forces on national policies, led by toxic figures like Ronald Reagan, forced black legislators to appeal to investors and capitalists to keep their towns and cities financially afloat.
“Not only were Black municipal officials without resources, but they accepted the premise of ‘pro-growth’ government,” writes scholar and socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. “Almost universally, they embraced tax cuts for private business, in combination with costly public-private partnerships that purported to redevelop commercial districts but often turned into expensive boondoggles.”
So long as capitalism is allowed to regenerate, it will force lawmakers into making compromises on the backs of the already marginalized.
“The pro-growth logic rests on a trickle-down ideology that is faulty on two counts. First, even in the best-case scenario, the benefits do not trickle very well, very far, or very efficiently,” political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. states in Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era, “The big winners are the developers and locating firms who garner public subsidies and the suburbanites who take the relatively high-paying jobs created by the growth of the office economy. What trickles to a growing share of the electoral constituency are low-paying, consumer service sector jobs, and not very many of those per dollar investment.”
Further, since the 1980s, both political parties have moved further to the right. Since the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whose electoral coalitions relied on predominantly white support, the mainstream political discourse on issues of racial and economic justice have been narrowed and often, manipulated by white conservative forces hoping to maintain their power and influence. For instance, under Reagan, programs designed to lift up the most marginalized, especially America’s poor and working-class, were being drastically cut. And in the process of getting rid of social and welfare programs, Reagan and his allies used dog-whistle tactics in suggesting that the only ones who used such programs were African Americans and other minority groups, even though the majority of people on welfare and other government-supported programs are white. Either way, these tactics helped in bringing together a coalition of white workers, white suburbanites, as well as white economic elites and white evangelicals into power across the country.
More importantly, the shift in political language and policies also infected the Democrat Party, as explained by Paul Frymer. Again, in Uneasy Alliances, Frymer details how over the past decades, the white leaders of the Democrat Party, in order to pursue the Republican white working-class vote, also began to adopt very conservative policies. In fact, it was under the Clinton presidency that we would witness the gutting of the welfare system and rise of the prison industrial complex, directly impacting the lives of countless black and brown peoples across the country. Frymer writes that as the so-called white “moderate” wing of the party grew within the Democrat Party following the 1960’s, with the creation of the Democrat Leadership Council, its party leaders and allies have been consistently “distancing itself from its African American constituency.”
However, unlike whites, African Americans lack real options in the electoral arena. Since the 1980’s, for many African American voters, it has been a choice at the national level between Republican candidates who have become increasingly explicit about their racism and indifferent to issues of economic and racial and gender justice and a Democrat Party, especially since Clinton, slightly better than the Republicans on a handful of important issues. Ultimately, African Americans and other marginalized groups have no choice other than to vote for the Democrat or to not vote at all and many Democrat politicians know that as well and have, until recently, felt no need to express solidarity with black and brown voters.
Fortunately, some of this has been changing, due to grassroots pressure from progressive and left-wing groups and from campaigns, such as AOC’s, which have relied on support from black and brown voters who have felt disaffected in the past. And more importantly, these grassroots groups and campaigns are willing to also, challenge the Democrats in power too, letting it be known that their votes and interests cannot be taken for granted any longer.
To subvert this dynamic of “captured” politics and racist and classist policies supported by Republican as well as Democrats, we must build an independent socialist constituency among black and brown and progressive whites. The point of creating this constituency, through electoral and issue campaigns and political organizing, is to have a group of people prepared to pressure policymakers and corporations, regardless of party affiliation and electoral outcomes. The goal is to empower marginalized communities as well as to keep shifting the political discourse and terrain around issues of racial and economic justice.
Building a Constituency
Whether reporting on communities in upstate New York for a local daily or organizing in neighborhoods closer to home, such as New Brunswick or Trenton, it’s not hard to find black and brown communities devastated by economic policies pushed by Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s not hard to find neighborhoods with block after block of foreclosed homes, with grass as high as your torso and windows covered in police tape. Or to speak with black and brown residents, our people, with bags under their eyes from working multiple jobs to survive financially.
Electoral politics can offer a brief reprieve for America’s marginalized, especially at the local level. Having socialist and progressive candidates in local positions of power can help to enact laws that mitigate foreclosures, for example. However, at the national level, the idea of depending on the existing electoral process in delivering policies that can greatly enhance the living and working conditions of most black and brown people is unrealistic.
The reality remains that mass revolution will not be occurring in the near future either and policies will be passed regardless. Therefore, it is necessary for us to continue running candidates at the local level and to support those closest to us at the national. More importantly, we must continue energizing and organizing disaffected black and brown voters , in hopes of building an independent socialist constituency that can pressure institutions and elected officials.
The legendary academic and revolutionary, Angela Davis, summed this up best in Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. “Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome,” she explains, “Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the par of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.”
Sociologists and experts of mass movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, explained in the classic text, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, that whatever major positive changes have occurred emerged from efforts that were independent of either political party, from workers taking over factories to black and brown people leading urban uprisings in major cities during the 1960s. Each time, legislators would respond with policies that were beneficial to those groups, such as expanding welfare or recognizing unions. In our present-day, we must repeat those efforts by stitching together a constituency of black and brown and progressive whites — and connect them with progressive labor and social movements like Black Lives Matter — in order to build a constituency that can pressure elected officials and confront capital directly.
Taylor writes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, “Developing alliances with organized labor could lead to workers exercising their power to shut down production, services, and business as usual as pressure for concrete reforms concerning the police state.”
To put it plainly, in order to reach a large segment of Americans, black and brown and East Asian American, who remain disaffected, we must support/run campaigns that reach out to them and engages them on issues that they are concerned with. Realistically, the way that most people engage with politics for the first time is through a political campaign and most often do not make the jump from feeling disaffected to becoming anti-capitalist overnight. That said, while we engage with them and connect them to larger critiques of capitalism and white supremacy, we maintain our efforts in organizing and energizing them past the election. Even if we support a candidate, our goal is to not simply create a group of voters loyal to the candidate or to the party. Rather, our goal is to create a constituency that is ultimately, independent of that candidate and of the mainstream electoral institutions. This is a constituency that can of course, vote as a block on candidates if they need to, but then, can also, gradually be prepared to strike at their workplaces, to shut the economy down and antagonize the economic elites, to rally in the streets, and to lead uprisings against the existing political and economic forces around them. Admittedly, the process of radicalizing groups will still take time. However, first getting them engaged on issues of economic and racial and gender justice through a left-wing electoral campaign that mirrors the campaigning style and rhetoric of someone like an AOC or an Ilhan Omar is a solid step in that direction. After all, although AOC and Omar even are also limited by the structural obstacles baked into the U.S. Congress, their campaigns do what most organizers should dream of: to shift the political discourse once more toward the Left while integrating the most marginalized into those mainstream political discussions. Again, in the interim, we do need more and more representatives like AOC, who could at least slow down some of the worst policies, and who can challenge the Democrat center-right establishment. In fact, in her first days in Congress, AOC led a small protest outside Speaker Pelosi’s office on the issue of climate change.
Veteran political reporter and author of We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement, Ryan Grim writes, “Within days, the Green New Deal would find dozens of congressional supporters: within a few months it would become a resolution introduced in both chambers of Congress, dominate the political conversation, and receive endorsements from almost every serious Democratic presidential candidate for 2020. By May 2019, Democratic voters would tell pollsters that climate change was their top issue.”
A similar effect has taken place since 2016, with the rise of Bernie Sanders’ national presence shifting the political discourse also to the Left, with now, major presidential candidates in the Democrat primary having to now prove just how progressive they are on issues of healthcare and wages. Similarly, with Omar in recent months stating explicitly the threat of white supremacy, the issue of white supremacy has now become something that even elements of the mainstream media have now been forced to confront in their reporting.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the change we would need to see happen, such as the redistribution of wealth from the white elites to black and brown communities, can happen overnight or happen in the system as it is right now. But, through campaigns like AOC’s, people are energized and are connected with one another and more importantly, begin to acknowledge the power of collective strength. Furthermore, candidates like AOC and those around them, including left-wing organizations and left-wing unions, begin to discuss with their constituents issues like inequity, inequality, and injustices stemming from corporate capital and white supremacy and patriarchy. The next step then is for left-wing and progressive organizations to keep that discussion also going with the people they meet along the campaign trail, to keep engaging them beyond the electoral time frame. For instance, in the Central Jersey DSA chapter (which I co-chair), many of us have been radicalized through Sanders and AOC among others. Personally, my politics also stems from the work and insights of black radicals such as Angela Davis and members of the original Black Panther Party. That said, all of us seek to organize residents in our communities to not just vote along progressive issues, which may lead them to volunteering for political campaigns or in voting for progressive candidates such as Sanders, but to also fight for those progressive issues, regardless of who wins power. After all, the solution isn’t to simply have enough progressives like Sanders or even AOC in power. The solution is to empower, radicalize and galvanize the masses, especially black and brown voters into recognizing that they too deserve a voice and can in fact, achieve power someday. This means, again, leveraging electoral campaigns and progressive leaders in connecting black and brown people with one another and then, continuing to organize along issues like affordable housing, healthcare, and an end to for-profit prison system. Essentially, it is about building power as an independent constituency, which means organizing communities even when the elections are over and helping in creating neighborhood associations, tenants’ unions, workplace unions, and allying with existing progressive and left-wing labor groups and groups like BLM, to behave like an independent political force/party would. Ironically, this is a strategy deployed by the far-right following the 1960s. As detailed by historians and social scientists alike, such as Nancy MacLean, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Jane Mayer, the right-wing, instead of giving into the Republican leadership at the time, decided to lead electoral campaigns as well as organize around issues important to them, such as limiting the power of unions and deregulating the economy. They did this by bringing into the fold white evangelicals, and reactionary white Americans and also, by engaging with those populations beyond electoral campaigns. In the beginning, the far-right agenda didn’t necessarily pan out the way its leaders would’ve wanted with huge electoral losses faced by its main political leaders like Barry Goldwater. Yet, the right-wing leadership persisted in running campaigns and supporting campaigns, even if they knew they’d lose, in Republican primaries, in the hopes of at least, chipping away each time at the influence that the existing Republican representative had in that district as well as in the hopes of shifting public political discourse in their favor. They ensured this by also organizing those groups in their coalition, from white evangelicals to corporate leaders who were once reluctant in being so explicitly “political”, into organizations, such as thinks tanks and other institutionalized organizations, such as the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity, which can activate so-called grassroots support for pro-business policies, even in states once known as progressive, such as Wisconsin.
The point being is that the far-right won because they leverage the electoral arena while also continuing to organize on issues that mattered to them. Therefore, the Left can do the same and since we have the masses on our side, with the demographics of the country rapidly shifting, and with more and more Americans, especially younger black and brown Americans, seeking out newer alternatives, we can most definitely shift the political discourse and shape policies in our favor. Again, it will take time but electoral politics can be a tool in that process, so long as we also remember that the end goal is in creating a constituency that is willing to take next steps, such as strikes and shutting down the economy in the near future, even if a Sanders or a AOC wins power.
Again, the goal is to foment what Dr. King referred to as “positive tension” which can range from leading sit-ins at city hall until demands are met or leading strikes that shut down the local and state-wide economy. It is imperative to use electoral campaigns as a vessel in building that power and the capacity for the economically and politically marginalized to shift policies in their favor and to help them recognize their own ability to challenge the unjust forces around them.
“There is no way to get around the fact that the type of work we have to do to rebuild a sense of the public interest is going to take a long time and has to start by building connections between people who may not think of themselves as political, who may not think of the various issues they struggle with as being in the product of the neoliberal turn, who may not know what neoliberalism is,” political scientist Lester Spence states in his exploration of neoliberalism and black politics in Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. “What I am referring to here is not the same as getting people to attend a rally or a march. I’m referring to political organizing—building the capacity of people to govern and make important political decisions for themselves—not political ‘mobilizing’”.
Ceding the electoral arena to the reactionaries is therefore, not an appropriate response to our present economic and political crisis. As history has shown us, reactionaries can and have been pushed back through certain electoral means. Harnessing the frustration and anger among black and brown Americans today is crucial in our hopes of repeating that history and stalling more regressive policies as well as shaping politics so it can finally speak to the demands of black and brown people. Of course, there is a fine line we have to balance between not dismissing the electoral altogether while also, not buying into the idea that salvation can be had through electing candidates into office within a white supremacist and capitalist economic and political system overall. That’s why forming an independent coalition/constituency is necessary if we hope to effectively counter the coalition of reactionaries, which include corporations and police unions and white evangelicals, as we also, persist in building toward a more revolutionary moment.
“The new leadership for democratic renewal would have to come from working-class and low-income women involved in neighborhood associations and networks, from former prisoners, inmates and their families who were fighting against the prison industrial complex, from liberal religious activists inside faith-based institutions and from hip-hop artistic community,” Marable wrote, again in Beyond Black and White. After Barack Obama’s win for his first term as president, Marable stated, “The Obama victory will be of great assistance in waging the struggle for racial justice. But electoral politics is not a substitute for social protest organizing in neighborhoods and in the streets.”
In the end, when I think of the potential of electoral politics in stirring radical and socialist change, I think of my students, my family and my own experiences organizing. While knocking on doors inside a high-rise in Trenton earlier this year, with the purpose of organizing residents to demand better living conditions from the property developer, a DSA comrade and I met a resident who appeared skeptical of who we were, which was understandable. Skin wrinkled and slightly hunched, he skimmed over our pamphlet as we tried our best to explain what we were doing. Eventually, the man simply looked up and squinted and asked if our group was aligned with either the Democrats or Republicans. We hesitated and my comrade answered that we were similar to Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. Instantly, a smile swept across the man’s face and he invited us inside his apartment where he showed us the cracks and the leaks in the wall that the landlord ignored and where we spent the next half-hour discussing what our next steps should be.
Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University and staff writer at The Aerogram. His whose work has also been published in CNN, Lancaster Newspaper, The Daily Gazette, The Jersey Journal, The Washington City Paper, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour) and AsAm news. He focuses on issues of race and social justice through his work, and is a fervent optimist, but not the annoying kind.
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